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Supreme Court broadens the rights of criminal defendants

We often write about the ways in which the legal system constrains the rights of criminal defendants. However, those who are forced to mount a criminal defense received more protections rather than fewer in a recent Supreme Court ruling.

The Court held that the Constitution protects the rights of defendants to have effective legal counsel during the plea negotiation phase of the criminal defense process.

Plea bargaining has long been treated as an informal process, and is therefore largely unregulated. However, the prevalence of plea bargaining within the system led to a 5-4 decision which upholds the rights of defendants at this part of the process.

Anthony Kennedy, who authored the majority opinion, wrote that, "Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials. The right to adequate assistance of counsel cannot be defined or enforced without taking account of the central role plea bargaining takes in securing convictions and determining sentences."

This is an especially important ruling for those who receive bad legal advice during plea bargaining. Just as defendants are entitled to adequate professional counsel during trial, they are now considered entitled to this right during plea bargaining.

Should bad legal advice cause a defendant to reject a favorable plea deal, the courts will now be able to remedy the situation in certain ways, depending on the case.

Some have noted that the Court's holding will lead to an increase in claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and challenges to plea bargain agreements as a result. However, if such an increase leads to justice for those with legitimate claims, the Court's ruling is all the more important and advantageous for every citizen.

Source: New York Times, "Justices' Ruling Expands Rights of Accused in Plea Bargains," Adam Liptak, Mar. 21, 2012

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